There comes a time in every pregnancy when all that's left to do is...wait. The books have been read, the nursery decorated, the car seat installed. "Once you get to 37 weeks of pregnancy, your baby could be born at any time," says Susan Cooter, RN, director of Prepared Childbirth Educators, an organization based in Hatboro, Pennsylvania.
But even though most women give birth between 37 and 42 weeks -- a fairly broad span -- there's no way to pinpoint when labor will begin. "Not knowing makes some women very anxious," says Cooter, who is also a certified doula, an individual who is trained to provide emotional and physical support to women in labor.
If you're a first-time mom, you may not even realize when you're officially in labor. "Plenty of women head to the hospital only to be told to go back home," notes Cooter. It can be hard to distinguish Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false contractions, from the real thing. But if your contractions gradually become stronger, last longer, and are getting closer together, chances are that labor has begun.
Even if you're in true labor, it may take a while before you're sure. "I was past 39 weeks pregnant with my first baby, but I was in denial that labor was imminent," says Sarah Kearney, a mom of three who lives in Portland, Oregon.
On the day before her daughter Phoebe, now 5, was born, Kearney left her house in the late afternoon to run errands and noticed some fleeting back pains. "I thought I was just sore from my morning swim," she says. It wasn't until that night that she realized she was in labor. "I'd been having minor twinges all day, but at about 10 p.m., the contractions really started to hurt."
When they were about 8 minutes apart, at around 2 a.m., she and her husband headed to the hospital. Upon arriving there, Kearney's cervix was already 7 centimeters dilated (a baby is ready to be born when the cervix is dilated to 10 centimeters). Phoebe was born around noon, after more than six hours of pushing.
In the early stages of labor, you're better off at home where you'll be more comfortable. After all, a first-time mom can expect to be in labor for 12 to 14 hours, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "Labor with subsequent pregnancies usually goes faster," Cooter says.
When it does come time to check in to the hospital or birthing center, keep in mind that things don't always (or more accurately, don't usually) go exactly as planned. You may not be able to get the epidural you wanted, or you may end up needing a cesarean. "It's fine to have an idea of how you'd like the birth to go, but you need to be flexible," says Cooter.
Keeping in mind that labor is different for every woman, and for each of her pregnancies, here's what you might expect.
Your physician will likely have told you when to call her or go to the hospital, but it's typically when contractions happen at regular intervals, such as every 8 or 10 minutes, and get closer together. Other indications that you're in labor include the "rupture of membranes" (when your water breaks), losing the mucus plug, and passing bloody discharge, called "show." Remember that not all women experience all of these signs of labor, so if you're unsure, call your caregiver.
While some lucky moms-to-be push just a few times, Sonia Millsom's experience is more typical: "I pushed for about two hours and then had Veronica," says the mother of two, from East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
"When my daughter was delivered, I remember thinking, Okay. I'm done. I did it," says Dimity Davis, a mother of two, in Colorado Springs. "Then about three minutes later, I was having contractions again and the doctor told me to start pushing, because the placenta had to come out." Davis admits that even though she had taken childbirth classes, she hadn't remembered this part of the birth experience. "I had to push for 10 seconds, just like I did with the baby, and it was unexpectedly painful," says Davis, who couldn't have the epidural she had planned on since the only anesthesiologist on call was needed at a c-section delivery. "At least it was quick," she says. "One push and that was it."
"It's been the trend for many years to have Dad be the labor support person, but that's not the only option," says Susan Cooter, RN, a nurse and childbirth education expert based in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. "Sometimes men are tense about the whole process," she says, "and may not make the best labor aid." Have a conversation with your spouse well before the big day arrives, she says. He might be relieved to share the day with a professional doula who is trained to provide support to women in labor, or with your sister or a friend. "The last thing you want is to have someone who is stressed or scared in the room with you," notes Cooter. To find a certified birth doula in your area, visitdona.org.
"I was about a week past my due date when I woke to labor pains at 1 a.m. I refused to go to the hospital with dirty hair, so first I jumped into the shower, moaning all the while. Then my husband got lost on the way to the hospital!" -- Heide Balaban, Baldwin, New York
"With my first baby, I was two weeks late, so I had to be induced. They gave me Pitocin to get things started, but once labor kicked in, it kicked in fast. After maybe 3 hours, my daughter was born!" -- Kara Casten, Downers Grove, Illinois
"I had to deliver via c-section. I entered the operating room at 8 a.m., and my daughter was delivered at 8:17. I still can't believe it was so quick!" -- Pam Hansell, Levittown, Pennsylvania
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